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Osip Mandelstam - Stanzas

Osip Mandelstam



No, I don't want small change for my soul's
last kopeck from any of these pruned youths.
A recalcitrant peasant at state farm gates,
I join this village where people look great.
Red Army coats that drop to the heels –
I love their pleats, their sleeves are smooth,
kin to the cut of the Volga's rainclouds,
wasting no hems, that they still fit
when breast and back threaten to split,
be bundled up when summer comes round.


Some blasted stitch and my daft intent
have pulled us apart. Let this though be said:
I have to breathe now, to thrive and bolshevize,
improve my looks in time for my death,
and live some more in some human lives.


Recall that day I tore round Cherdyn,
which reeks of the Ob, where out of the drains
the Tobol appears. In that ten-inch bustle,
denunciatory goats got on with their scuffles.
In that pigeon city, I stared like a cockerel
at victuals, at spittle, at something agleam,
right through that summer's translucent fog.
What a snoop, that woodpecker I would knock
off my shoulder. One leap. And then I was sane.


So Moscow, what about you then, sister?
Before the first tram pounds out its bell,
you meet the aerial passenger – delicate,
softer than seas, confused as a mix
of wood and glass and milk in a bowl.


My country dealt me treats and beratings,
misread my writing, but once I'd been raised,
it appeared as a witness who kept me in sight,
then a lens, and the Admiralty's miniature rays
rapidly turned to find and ignite me.


I have to breathe now, to thrive and bolshefy,
running my speech through my mind's own checks.
I pick up the Soviet machines now hammering
away in the Arctic, remember the necks
of our German brethren, think of the Hangman
relaxing with gardening: over your crest
he walks in velvet light, Loreley.


I've not been robbed, I've not been broken,
just smashed into too many parts at most.
My string's as taut as the Lay of the Host,
and in my voice, now I've finished choking,
the Black Earth calls, last weapon I have,
parched and moist, with its hectares' gab!

May to July 1935

Osip Mandelstam

Translated by Alistair Noon

Translation copyright © Alistair Noon, 2020

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